MERRIMAC — Members of a committee recently received a $16,000 grant from the state to help pay for a playground that was ordered closed by selectmen due to a lack of money to make it accessible to all children. The grant puts the committee closer, but still short of its goal.

In late February, Selectman Joel Breen announced the fate of the Stevens Field playground on Facebook.

"It is with great sadness that after receiving a denial from the Architectural Access Board for our request for an extension to bring the current playground into ADA compliance," he wrote, "the Board of Selectmen, under advice of counsel, have voted to remove and store the equipment."

Because of liability concerns, there was no alternative other than to remove the equipment with the hope of moving ahead at some point with a project that would comply, Breen said.

Since then, playground committee member Kathleen Philp said the group has been discussing fundraising tactics to get the playground built in about a year. Philp said her group lobbied local state representatives and senators for funding through the state budget, successfully obtaining the $16,000 grant to put toward the playground budget.

Philp said the entire project would cost $40,000, including the purchase of equipment and preparing the ground. Half of the amount is town money allocated to the playground committee in 2016, she said, and the other half is funded through donations, grants and other sources.

"It's a small town," Philp said. "It's difficult to raise funds. All of us in the Parent-Teacher Association, we’re all tapping the same sort of funds. We got $5,000 from a local bank, received local grants, worked with the Newburyport Mothers and Families Club. They gave us money. It's really been this real local effort."

Breen said the playground equipment installed in the first phase was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, town officials had already closed the playground because there was "no clear path" when the site would be finished.

Selectmen unanimously decided it was in the best interest of the town and residents to remove the equipment and store it until enough money could be raised to complete the project.

Within the last month, the town was denied its appeal before the state Architectural Access Board to keep the playground open, said Breen, who noted all new playgrounds being built in a community have to comply with regulations that ensure they are accessible to all people with disabilities.

Town officials noted that this includes having pathways to each piece of equipment on the playground, such as swings and slides, for wheelchair users to access. Philp said to bring the playground up to ADA compliance would cost about $20,000 and, with the grant, she thinks the playground committee would be able to meet its goal.

"This is why it's particularly heartbreaking, there is a small gap to fill," Philp said. "We have $1,600 left from fundraising. We see no problem in being able to fill that gap to get pathways that are sufficient for the AAB. The town is looking to cover themselves liability-wise in case anyone were trying to sue and we’re looking at this as a multiyear and multistage project."

Philp noted that Merrimac is a growing town in terms of young families, however, there are no public playgrounds available. The playground at the elementary school is not up to ADA standards and is not available during school hours, she added.

The playground committee "rallied the troops" last week at a meeting to brainstorm fundraising ideas to fill the gap, according to Philp. Members of the group are expected to speak at the selectmen meeting March 12.

"This is something we’ve definitely poured our heart and soul into," Philp said. "We’ve had so much support of local businesses and ... we don't want to see all that effort to go to waste. We want people to stay in town and bring their kids here."

To read a previous story on the Merrimac playground project, visit https://www.newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/merrimac-playground-scrapped-for-lack-of-funding-accessibility/article_545fd0d4-6e9b-5778-ab77-b19715b4ea4b.html.

Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.

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